Seeing Leviticus with New Eyes: Understanding the Pollution of Sin and the Need for Sacrifice

steve-sharp-DmM6NQcavuI-unsplashOn Tuesday’s nights I teach a class on Leviticus, which I have affectionately entitled, “Leviticus: The Most Exciting Book You’ve (N)ever Read). If you are interested in learning a thing or two about this vitally important book and how it teaches us about Christ, the gospel, and the logic of God’s atonement, you can find the lessons here

This week, as we considered the Reparation Offering—which if you will listen has some application for considering the modern question of reparations—I began with a discussion on the difference between this offering and the Purification Offering. On that point, I found the following explanation of sin as pollution helpful. In his commentary on Leviticus, Gordon Wenham observes the way Moderns fail to understand the cultic idea of sin and pollution. This is one of many reasons why we struggle to understand Leviticus. But once we understand how Israel’s sin defiled the tabernacle and its various sections (i.e., the altar, the holy place, and the holy of holies), we begin to understand what the sacrifices did. This understanding of the sacrificial system, in turn, helps understand what Christ did in his atoning sacrifice, as well as what it means that Jesus is our propitiation.

Again, this is why we are looking at Leviticus. And to help us understand that book and the whole concept of sacrificial worship and atonement for our sin, I share these reflections from Gordon Wenham.

That sin pollutes is not a conception that is readily understood by the Western mind, and so various attempts have been made to explain it. B. A. Levine notes that on the day of atonement blood was sprinkled on various objects that the high priest passed on his way into the holy of holies. He views the entrance of the high priest as a potentially dangerous infection coming right into the presence of God, and rendering God liable to attack by demons. Sin was viewed as a demonic contagion which could be introduced into the sanctuary by human agents.

Such an interpretation might be entertained in some non-Israelite religions, but it hardly seems likely in an OT context. It is not God who is endangered by the pollution of sin, but man. God’s holiness may be expressed in wrath, where sin is not atoned for and its guilt is not removed. The great calling of Israel was to be God’s holy people among whom he would dwell. His presence was realized in the cloud that came down on Mount Sinai at the law-giving and in the cloud that overshadowed the tabernacle from time to time. The tabernacle was indeed God’s dwelling place among his people (Exod. 29:43-46). It had to be kept pure from sin, if God was to remain there and if the people were not to experience God’s wrath instead of his mercy. To have God dwelling in your midst is both a great blessing and a great danger. The danger, of course, springs from man’s sinfulness, which always arouses God’s wrath. In discussing Lev[iticus] we concluded that the burnt offering was the principal atoning sacrifice in ancient Israel. It was the sacrifice that reconciled the sinner with his creator. It was the most frequent sacrifice and also the most costly. Only unblemished animals could be offered and they had to be burned whole; there was no meat left for the priests to eat.

In contrast the purification offering was a less important rite. It was offered less frequently, and less valuable animals were used. It was designed to cope with a subsidiary problem created by human sin-pollution and defilement. This is a notion that is almost a stranger to the modern world. We do treasure the memory of famous people and events, and enjoy visiting the places where they lived or something significant happened. We feel that by going there we may recapture something of the atmosphere and spirit of the great men or of the historic happening. The Bible attaches greater significance to actions than we do. For us they are just memories. For the biblical writers an action has enduring aftereffects. In particular, sins pollute the place where they are committed. Guilt rests on the area where a murder takes place (Deut. 21:1-9). The sins of the Canaanites polluted the land to such an extent that it vomited them out (Lev. 18:24–30). 

Shakespeare was familiar with the idea that sin leaves a stain which no human effort can remove. For example, Lady Macbeth suffered as a sleepwalker as a result of collaborating in murder. Each night she used to rise from her bed and wash her hands repeatedly, because she thought they still had blood on them.

“Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh! oh! oh!” 
(Macbeth 5.1.55-57)

The purification offering dealt with the pollution caused by sin. If sin polluted the land, it defiled particularly the house where God dwelt. The seriousness of pollution depended on the seriousness of the sin, which in turn related to the status of the sinner. If a private citizen sinned, his action polluted the sanctuary only to a limited extent. Therefore the blood of the purification offering was only smeared on the horns of the altar of burnt sacrifice. If, however, the whole nation sinned or the holiest member of the nation, the high priest, sinned, this was more serious. The blood had to be taken inside the tabernacle and sprinkled on the veil and the altar of incense. Finally over the period of a year the sins of the nation could accumulate to such an extent that they polluted even the holy of holies, where God dwelt. If he was to continue to dwell among his people, this too had to be cleansed in the annual day of atonement ceremony (see Lev. 16). (Gordon Wenham, Leviticus, 94–96)

To summarize his exposition and connect Leviticus to Christ and ourselves, we might note five principles about sin, God’s holy tabernacle, and the need for an atoning sacrifice to cleanse us and the holy precincts of God’s house.

  1. Sin is a deadly contagion and when individuals or the congregation of Israel sinned it had the effect of polluting God’s holy dwelling. Moreover, the depth of sin was marked by where the sin reached. For the high priest and the congregation, atonement had to be brought into the holy place. And on the day of atonement, the very mercy seat of God had to be purified, lest the sin of Israel defile his throne.
  2. Sin is attached to a place and not just to a person. If you read Leviticus 18:24-30, you will see how the sins of the Amorites led to their expulsion from the land. Just the same in Israel. When they kept covenant they enjoyed God’s presence, but when they sinned (continually, unrepentantly, and for generations) God removed them from his presence.
  3. Sin must be covered by blood and that blood must cover almost everything in the house of God. As Hebrews 9:21–22 declare, under the law almost everything had to be purified by blood. Without such cleansing, the pollution of sin would make it impossible for God to dwell in the midst of sinful people. Conversely, the only way sinners could enjoy God’s presence was through the atonement of their sin, which focused on purifying the house of God from the sins of God’s covenant people.
  4. Atonement comes by way expiation and propitiation. Or to put it into theological categories, the propitiation (or appeasement) of God’s wrath is accomplished by the expiation (or cleansing) of the people’s sin. In Leviticus, the word for atonement (kpr) carried the idea of “covering.” When sin polluted God’s holy things, lifeblood was the necessary means of sanctifying them once again. And only when these holy things were covered and cleansed by blood (expiation) could God’s wrath be averted (propitiation.) Technically speaking, the personal propitiation of God’s wrath came by means of the effective expiation of sin’s pollution.
  5. There is delight and danger to have God dwell with you. The final principle we find here relates the existential reality of living near God. As Scripture declares, he is both a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29) and gracious and compassionate and delights to forgive sin (Exod. 34:6–7). Indeed, the entire priestly system (all that we find in Leviticus) is the gracious provision of God for sinners to be made clean, so that they can know and enjoy their Creator and Redeemer. Nevertheless, such grace is not without fear. As Psalm 130 says, “With [the Lord] there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” Indeed, this is why we study Leviticus—that we might know the forgiveness and fear of the Lord.

Even more, because Christ has come and fulfilled all the types and shadows we find in Leviticus (as well as the rest of the Old Testament), our fear of the Lord does not lead to terror, but to holy love and awe-filled thanksgiving. While many Westerners do not understand the logic of Leviticus, and some even get turned off by the countless details and oceans of blood, when we take time to understand Leviticus on its own terms and see how it is fulfilled in Christ, we find a powerful message of God’s holiness and grace. Admittedly, it takes time to understand the logic of Leviticus, but it is worth the effort. For, it is the very heart of what Christ did for us on the cross.

To that end of knowing Christ, let us return to Leviticus—the most exciting book you’ve (n)ever read. And if my lessons on this book might help, feel free to tune in.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Steve Sharp on Unsplash